Mother Nature offers us an irresistible invitation at this time of year - to bake with the exotic fruits of ancient origin that abound in autumn. Be adventurous and explore the (seemingly strange fruit) native to places and of times far-flung – think Ancient Egypt, the Middle East, Persia or Iran, Turkey, India, Central Asia and Japan.
Let’s start with the quince – a nobbly and peculiar-looking contender from Turkey and Central Asia. One of the most ancient fruits, there was a time in Australia (though rare now), when a quince tree was a common fixture in our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ suburban backyards. (For those of us who enjoyed a cheese plate in the 80s and 90s, undoubtedly there would have been a sweet and delicious quince paste as part of the spread.)
The quince fell from common favour when lawns began to dominate our backyards and home cooks found they didn’t have the time or energy for the reasonable amount of attention needed to render the quince edible and enjoyable. But I believe this unique fruit is very much worth the effort.
Quinces with a thin layer of fuzz aren’t fully ripe and have been harvested a little too soon.
Choose quinces that are heavy for their size and free from bruises, wrinkles or damaged skin. Ripe quinces will have a smooth skin with an even golden-yellow hue (those with a thin layer of fuzz aren’t fully ripe and have been harvested a little too soon) and give out a wonderful apple/citrus/vanilla aroma.
Once home, quinces are best stored in a single layer in a cool, dry, dark place for up to two weeks, or keep them in a sealed plastic bag in the crisper part of the fridge for up to one month.
Quince flesh is woody, tough and a little spongy, so can be difficult to prepare. Peel the fruit with a vegetable peeler, cut into eighths and remove the core using a small sharp knife. When cooked (poaching or baking are best), the creamy flesh transforms to a rosy orange-pink colour with a flavour that is sweet, delicate and distinctive. The pomegranate is another ancient fruit that has enjoyed a recent revival. It hails from Iran and India, and the thick leathery skin of this crimson beauty encases an abundance of arils – edible seed pods covered with the unusually flavoured ruby red pulp. A symbol of fertility, this fruit is actually at its best when not looking so good – basically the uglier the better. Pass on the ones with smooth, shiny skin because black marks and even cracks (without mould, of course) are a good indication that the fruit is mature, juicy and will have the ideal sharp and bitter sweetness. Choose fruit that is heavy for its size – another good sign that it will be juicy.
Pomegranates - basically the uglier the better. Pass on the ones with smooth, shiny skin.
Pomegranates are best stored either at room temperature out of direct sunlight for up to a week or for up to a month in the fridge in an open plastic bag in the crisper section.
To extract the seeds from a pomegranate without damaging the them, use a small sharp knife to cut a small cone shape at the stem end and cut a disc from the base. Now, use the knife to score the skin along the ridges of the fruit into wedges and use your hands to break it apart. Using your fingers, carefully peel the arils away from the creamy membrane.
The next ancient fruit to consider was another one-time backyard staple, known mainly for the jam made from it. Strikingly pretty with their green and purple hues, figs are picked from a tree the Egyptians regarded as the Tree of Life, while to the Ancient Greeks they were a symbol of fertility. When buying, look for figs with clean, dry and unbroken skin. Ripe figs will yield to gentle pressure but won’t feel soft.
Persimmon has twice as much fibre as an apple.
Fully ripe figs will spoil quickly and are best kept in the fridge on a plate or tray in a single layer and covered with paper towel and then plastic wrap for two or three days only. Figs are always best served at room temperature, when they will be at their most flavoursome and juicy. Used in cooking, they are quite versatile and a wonderful richly flavoured addition.
Finally, let’s appreciate the stunningly autumn-toned persimmon. With its yellowy/orange to burnt orange/red blush, the persimmon has twice as much fibre as an apple.
There are two main varieties, which are treated differently. The fuyu persimmon is the slightly flattened type that looks similar to a tomato and has a lighter orange-yellow skin. It can be eaten like an apple when firm, crisp and barely ripe, or left to soften at room temperature for two or three weeks and then enjoyed.
By contrast the hachiya variety is more oval, almost acorn-shaped. It is extremely astringent when under-ripe and its bitterness can turn you away from this fruit for life! However, one or two weeks of ripening at room temperature will turn the skin to a deep sunburnt orange and the pulp to a jelly-like consistency (when ripe they will actually feel like a water balloon) that has a heavenly sweet, rich and slightly spicy flavour. This delicious pulp is best scooped from the skin with a spoon.
When ripe, hachiya persimmon will feel like a water balloon.
You can hasten the ripening of a persimmon by placing it in a brown paper bag with an apple. When ripe the calyx will be easy to remove.
This autumn, embrace the unusual and enjoy the exotic flavours and textures these outstanding ancient fruits are famous for.
Bake Anneka's recipes with autumn fruits
Dense with lemon myrtle-scented quince and soaked with the poaching syrup, this cake is just as wonderful served warm as a dessert or for afternoon tea. It's made with raw sugar, which adds a caramel note. This cake is very simple – just beat everything together!
Pomegranates really don’t need much fanfare or support. This baked custard is a wonderful example of this – silky custard subtly flavoured with rosewater and topped with pomegranate syrup, fresh pomegranate seeds and toasted pistachios.
The combination of fig, honey and almonds is a well-loved one. I’ve added the gentle pungency of fresh sage to this and the result is sublime. This tart is something special to reserve for autumn lunches when figs are at their best.
Persimmons are a little mysterious – often one of those fruits that you’re not really sure if you should even take home with you, let alone bake with. These muffins are simple, make the most of persimmon’s sweet, rich, slightly spicy flavour. Rest assured, you’ve invited the right stranger into your kitchen.
Photography by Alan Benson. Styling by Sarah O'Brien. Food preparation by Tina McLeish.
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Anneka's mission is to connect home cooks with the magic of baking, and through this, with those they love. For hands-on baking classes and baking tips, visit her at BakeClub. Don't miss what's coming out of her oven via Facebook,Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.